In May 1971, Roman Polanski went to Monaco with documentarian Frank Simon to shadow the world’s greatest Formula 1 racer, Jackie Stewart. The result, a personable chronicle in which Polanski appears on camera casually chatting with Simon and hearing about his craft, never received a proper U.S. release. Rarely screened around the world, “Weekend of a Champion” was praised by racing enthusiasts but otherwise remained a near-mythological sidenote to the more significant credits Polanski accrued during that major period of his career.
Four years ago, Polanski learned that the negative of the film was going to be destroyed in the U.K. and decided to salvage it by heading up a restoration. Now, an updated version of “Weekend of a Champion,” including some 15 minutes of modern day footage added tacked onto the end — has premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Sales company Submarine Entertainment is currently shopping around theatrical rights, but Brett Ratner’s production company plans to make the film available on Netflix in the near future.
It’s no great surprise that the movie wasn’t salvaged earlier. At its most informative, “Weekend of a Champion” provides a nifty breakdown of the skills necessary to become a first-rate race car driver according to tips from its biggest star. But Polanski fans might also appreciate watching the filmmaker play a different kind of role than usual, casting himself as a sort of casual investigatory journalist intrigued not only by the sport but Stewart’s commitment to it. While credited as a producer on the project, it’s clearly his show.
As a title card announces each passing day, creating mild tension in anticipation of the Grand Prix’s eventual arrival, “Weekend of a Champion” gets up close with Stewart’s lively world. In the opening credits, he walks through the Monaco race track surrounding by massive, worshipful crowds and cameramen at every turn, a rock star’s welcome at odds with his apparently relaxed, personable demeanor. Away from the fervor of the public eye, Stewart talks to Polanski about the precision involved in the race, then takes along for a riveting practice session. The camera accompanies them in a single breathtaking behind-the-shoulder shot as the two men race around the track while Stewart explains the cautious methodology involved in turning each perilous bend. It’s a dry run for the triumph that follows a few days later and comes as no surprise: Stewart knows his stuff, but his confidence is accompanied by the lingering sense that something could go wrong at any moment.
In a concluding interview shot 40 years later for the restoration, Stewart discusses the high volume of racer-related deaths from that period, information that would have been better placed earlier in order to illustrate the sheer danger that both men place themselves in while speeding down the track. But there’s no doubting the power of the speed these cars reach. In his luxurious hotel room adjacent to the track, while having breakfast with Polanski, Stewart explains the nuances involved in racing with vivid metaphors — most notably, he compares the balancing act involved in keeping the car upright to keeping a knife upright by the edge of its blade. These moments make the craft accessible to non-racing aficionados, although they’re obviously the ideal audience.
However, it’s also heartening to watch a spirited Polanski in his prime, prior to the many darker stages of life that would later inform his public persona. Styled in sync with the period by sporting long hair and sideburns, the two men make a great pair. As much as Polanski guides the proceedings, there are hints of a buddy movie lurking in certain scenes. While filming Stewart shaving himself in the morning, Polanski catches the racer accidentally cutting himself. “This is great for your movie, Roman,” Stewart says. “You love blood in your movies.”
Of course, there’s nothing especially gruesome about “Weekend of a Champion” aside a handful of cutaways to racing crashes that demonstrate the disastrous possibilities awaiting all competitors. In the modern day footage, a wizened Stewart waxes poetic on the impact of the many friends who died during the height of his career (he estimates that he knew over 50 men that perished on the track), explaining his active role in improving safety regulations.
The high mortality rate imbues the riveting finale of the original material, as Stewart gears up for his big race. Stewart admits to ignoring the pressure. “You lose all relationship to emotion outside of the race car,” he says, comparing the rush to a drug trip. “Every so often it wears off,” he adds. The race itself unfolds in an expert montage that veers between abrupt shots of turning heads, blinking cameras and blurry vehicles.
These days, one can easily access a similar perspective of the race experience on television. Even so, when “Weekend of a Champion” zooms out of its original final shot to find the modern day Polanski and Stewart watching the film in the same suite where they conducted their interviews in the film, it focus more on their relationship. Their camaraderie suggests that Polanski finds intrigue in people who voluntarily put themselves in dangerous situations, a supposition illustrated by many of the characters in his fiction films.
To a certain extent, Stewart is a part of that world, but provides Polanski with the unique opportunity to interact with his subject. “I never worked out why you wanted to do this film in the first place,” he says. Polanski replies, “I wanted to do a film with my friend.” In its current form, “Weekend of a Champion” is not only a testament to their bond but its decade-spanning continuation.